Monday, February 13, 2006


“Taking the piss”, in popular parlance, signifies making a mockery of something, viewing it from its lighter side or divesting it from any serious connotations that it may have for others. As such, it forms an important part of the Australian tradition, closely linked as it is to the proverbial “tall poppy syndrome” which prevents anything, whether human or a denizen of the ethereal realms to grow too much out of proportion of its importance in the consciousness of society. Thus to the inevitable question “Is nothing sacred?” the Australian, or at least my next-door neighbour would respond: “Yeah. Football and beer.” But then again, the Australians’ capacity to make light of a serious situation, coupled with their wry humour are their most endearing features. Such traits are a direct descendant of European nineteenth century liberal values, which sought to demythologize ‘sacred cows’ such as class systems. They are also a product of a hitherto largely classless Australian society and quite possibly, a distant lineal mutation of the first people to “take the piss,” the ancient Greeks, especially Aristophanes through his biting satires and more literally, Menander, with his focus on bodily functions in general.
A deconstruction of the expression “taking the piss” however reveals more than just light-hearted banter. Its literal description of a urologic discharge harbours menacing connotations of paraphilia and a sadistic desire to humiliate that can only parallel the perversions of the urolagniacs and we would do well to recall this semantic substructure when would be proponents of free speech see fit to abandon social norms and the concerns of others in their pursuit of instant titillation.
Given the rapid development of defamation law in recent years, the Western World’s love affair with “free-speech” is amazing. Freedom of expression generally is held to be the product of a mature democratic society, which can cope with the manifestation of diverse or conflicting attitudes and we laud ourselves at arriving at such an apex of civilization. The reality of course is far different. It is questionable how “free” speech is in our mass media, especially when it is controlled only by two or three entities. Undesirable opinions can be lampooned or buried so that cultural or ideological conformity can be achieved, whereas advertising and the constant repetition of mantras dedicated to the wonders of individualism can render even the slightest expression of contrary views heresy.
In these heady days, in which we are still enmeshed in the throes of a “War on Terror,” free speech works like this in western democracies.: We are all “free” to applaud the invasion of Iraq, even express our concern at its wisdom but we are of course, not free to actively express support for Al Qaeda or armed violence in the furtherance of any cause, even if we were so demented and galactically insane as to want to do so, as certain Islamic clerics in Australia have found out recently.
Ultimately the canon of what is sacred and what can be parodied alters and morphs depending on the vicissitudes and conditions of the time. At this particular juncture, the integrity of the West and its civilizing mission is as sacred as the White Man’s Burden was to Kipling and Victorian England. Religion on the other hand is not and it is here that an inability to understand diverse cultures despite one’s own self-bestowed mantle of gentility and plurality can cause harm.
In 1997, the controversial photographer Andres Serrano exhibited his work in the National Gallery of Victoria and in particular, his infamous “Piss Christ,” depicting a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the Serrano’s urine. This work is often used as a test-case for the idea of freedom of speech, and was described in the journal Arts & Opinion as “a clash between the interests of artists in freedom of expression on the one hand, and the hurt such works may cause to a section of the community on the other.” In creating and exhibiting “Piss Christ” Serrano, was literally “taking the piss,” ie. sickeningly denigrating an object of extreme spiritual significance for the purposes of advancing his own career and possibly making some type of statement about the desirability of intellectual urolagnia and the opaque way one can view the world through a murky prism of liquid refuse.
I was still at university at the time and remember how when aggrieved members of the community, our own Bishop Ezekiel among them vociferously exercised their right to free speech by attempting to explain how such heinous disregard for a vast section of the world’s reigious sensitivites had been grieviously offended by Serrano’s artistic peregrinations, they were ridiculed, discounted, slighted and vilified as medieval remnants of a long lost time when knights acted with chivalry, spoked sweetly to fair maidens and cast their cloaks over muddy puddles in order for their queens to tread dry-shod. In the secular western world where commercial considerations drive man to attempt to achieve the heights of divinity upon a Babel of gold reserves, attachment to the supernatural is first tolerated, then questioned and finally, ridiculed and degraded, not in the interests of free speech but simply because our self-appointed cultural controllers, whether they reside in Stalinist Russia or the United Nations, would have it be so.
In today’s manifestation of the Eastern bloc, being the Islamic Crescent, religion is one thing that is taken extremely seriously. After all, is not the War on Terror being fought against a fanaticised group of criminals that would undemocratially impose their intepretation of Islam upon us and remove our freedom of speech from us? Are we not fighting a Holy War against the jihadists as our Crusader forefathers did a thousand years ago? It therefore comes as no surprise then that now, just as then, religious propaganda would be used to denigrate our adversary, in this ‘religious war.’ The cartoon of Muhammad in the guise of a terrorist, his turban in the shape of a bomb that has circulated throughout western Europe is nothing more than a thinly disguised sadistic urolagnic attack upon a rival culture and religion, masquerading as free speech. For its publishers should have known, as St John of Damascus did more than a thousand years ago, that the portrayal of Muhammad in his bodily form is a terrible offence to Muslims. His lampooning, though not as heinous as Serrano’s efforts, is also a grievous insult to those hundreds of millions who consider Muhammad to be the conveyor of the final divine revelation and it is obvious that this is what was intended, along with a sleazy feeling of satisfaction in having committed such a lewd act.
Free speech it would have been, to responsibly question certain cultural practices or doctrines associated with Islam that one disagrees with. There can be no excuse for lampooning figures of the past unless this is intended for insult. No one creates cartoons of Napoleon or Genghis Khan for example.
The extent of the damage is great. By seeking to hide behind the smokescreen of free speech to evade responsibility for this crime and clumsily mask its true intentions, the West, which has embarked upon a quest to convince the Islamic Crescent to divest itself of its ‘harmful’ traditional ways and embrace ‘pluralism,’ ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ has in fact stupidly demonstrated to its would be converts how hypocritical, inconsistent and ignorant the wielders of such cultural weapons are and further polarised the denizens two opposite ideological cardinal directions. In Australian, this is called “pissing in the wind.”
Assuredly, the way to avenge such insults is not by violence. The fact that in ‘democratic Turkey’, an EU candidate, Roman Catholic preists are seen as scapegoats for the conduct of Danish journalists and shot should ring alarm bells in those pushing for its reception into Europe. Similarly, attacks on Western embassies will achieve nothing more than to create further bitternenss and hatred on both sides, which leads one to understand why Serrano decided to carry out his urolagnic perversions on Christ, being a ‘soft’ target in a decadent westen world that now espouses other values, rather than on Muhammad, whose adherents would demand revenge.
At the end of the day, what infantile western journalists should understand is that it is not the Islamists that are so “pissed off” that shall «πληρώσουν την νύφη.» Instead it is the Middle Eastern Christians, the vast majority of whom are Orthodox, who will be held resonsible for the crimes of bigots who do not even have an inkling of their existence, and who since the Crusades have suffered revenge attack upon revenge attack, while remaining true to their religious beliefs in the face of asphyxiating pressure. But then again, why should that impress us? All things are subordinated to the ideological War on Terror, including decency, consideration and empathy. Fin de siècle gentility is ended. The Great War has begun and you had all better fill your bladders in readiness. We leave you this week with an extract of a poem entitled “Piss Christ” by Andrew Hudgins: “We are born between the urine and the faeces/ We have grown used to beauty without horror./ We have grown used to useless beauty.”

First published in NKEE on 13 February 2006